Anyone who’s ever watched the movie epic Lawrence of Arabia and fallen in love with the concept of empty endless sands will know of the frisson such landscapes can conjure. The dunes are harsh and barren – you wouldn’t want to swap our British greenery for such places – but when permanent rain is cloaking everything around, the thought of a brief trip to the desert takes on new meaning.
Tunisia is under three hours flying time from the UK’s damp shores and it offers more desert than you can imagine – different types of desert – on a recent trip I saw sand, salt and stony desert all in the period of a single day.
Some may groan at the thought of Tunisia if all they know are the massive Mediterranean resorts located up and down the central coast. But like so many destinations, Tunisia is coming of age and realising that the modern tourist wants more than a room in a tower block with a view of the sea, passable grub and cheap booze.
In recent years a number of “boutique” style hotels have set up in some of the Tunisia’s lesser known resorts – and it was in one such place that I spent my first night in the south of this remarkable country. On the flat, rather featureless island of Djerba, to be exact…
I say featureless, but there is plenty to see and do, not least of which is experience the colourful markets in the main town Houmt Souk. The spice market alone was worth the trip from England – never have I seen such piles of dazzling and piquant flavourings.
For a moment I was alarmed to find that the Dar Dhiafa hotel is situated behind a door in a high wall in a dingy street in a dull North African suburb. But the Dar Dhiafa is quite wonderful – a rabbit warren of ancient buildings surrounding endless courtyards. In one open area you find a dining area, in a couple of others you find cleverly disguised swimming pools. In another you come across your room complete with its Arabic antiques. In yet another you visit the Turkish bath.
That night we were served the best meal I have eaten in Africa –which is saying something. We had a mix of Djerban specialities, which included a selection of spiced fish, and other local dishes that had been prepared with a French spin – which was not surprising as one of the co-owners is French.
The following day we began our adventure south to the desert. This took us across the long low causeway which links Djerba with the mainland and soon after we were travelling in our big four wheel drive through the amazing salt pan deserts. Sunglasses are compulsory. The vast white bowls of salt are blinding white.
After a couple of hours the road began to climb and we entered a mountainous district that seemed to boast nothing but bare rocks. This is where we found the hot but extremely vibrant town of Tataouine. The market there is just about as genuine a North African souk as you will find anywhere – only the size of your suitcase limits the number of bargains you can take home.
After an enormous lunch consisting of countless dishes of stewed and roasted meats, we began to climb again – this time to lesser-known Ksar Debbab and the Berber village of Douiret.
This really was Lawrence of Arabia country – or certainly it was doing a jolly good job of emulating the mountains featured in the movie. We were off the tourist trails and deep into the hills. Alas, very few Berbers live here now, though one or two families hold out and you can still see their beautiful sky blue clothes wafting on washing lines amid the cliffs.
Now it was upwards again, until we levelled out on a plain that seemed to go on forever. No made up roads here – only rocky tracks that rattled the fillings out of our teeth until we made the driver stop on the pretence that we wanted to photograph a huge herd of camels that were roaming the grassless plain.
Occasionally we would spot black Berber tents way, way out in this inhospitable desert. What they ate, how they lived, remained a mystery. Our guide told us they would not appreciate our attentions and that we shouldn’t disturb them.
Eventually we came across a café. It was the most lonesome catering establishment I have ever seen. There was absolutely nothing for miles. When one of my female companions asked where the loo was, the two custodians laughed and laughed.
There was no toilet, but there was an awful lot of desert and they said she could help herself. Later we found another café that did have a loo – the loneliest toilet in the world.
After a few more hours, the stones began to give way to sand. And suddenly there it was – what I’d travelled thousands of miles to see – a vast ocean of dunes. An ocean that stretched south to Chad and Central Africa.
Somewhere in the middle of all this was Ksar Ghilane – an oasis where several tented camps are run by various tour operators as sort of romantic hotels where you can live the dream of desert life.
Except it’s not desert life really. It’s an air-conditioned luxury version complete with wine lists that would sit happily in any luxury hotel in the world and cuisine that is…
Well, a quick mention of the cuisine. After a long camel ride across the dunes to visit some lost and ancient fort, I had been looking forward to our big banquet. Oh dear, what a disappointment. The big deal down in the desert is for Berber people (at least, the ones who’ve adapted to tourism) to come and cook a traditional meal as you sit under the stars in an open nomad’s tent.
All well and good. The fire blazed, the ash-cooked unleavened bread dipped in local olive oil was a sensation, and the stars duly glinted more dazzlingly than anywhere else in the world. Then came the big moment. The opening of the sealed clay pot in which the local lamb stew had cooked all day. For this I was handed a ceremonial sword and told to swipe off the top of the container.
As a bloke who axes his own firewood I thought I’d be good at this – and the clay top was duly decapitated. With the wretched result that ten thousand pottery splinters invaded the stew. Every mouthful contained shards.
This was a minor disappointment compared to the wonders of the desert. After the meal I strolled into the starlit dunes and for a moment felt like TE Lawrence on a mission before the pure simple magic of the place overtook me. The ultra-fine sands really did sing in the breeze and I shall not forget being in that wild and awesome place for as long as I live.
Just like I shall remember seeing the troglodyte homes in Matmata. We’d taken another route back to the coast and entered what must be one of the weirdest locales anywhere within a few hours reach of London. The soft sandstones of Matmata lend themselves to tunnelling and for thousands of years the folk here have made themselves safe and snug homes underground.
Unlike the Berbers of the desert, they are most welcoming and allow you to wander around the rooms that they have bored around one large central well.
After such experiences you may need to chill out for a while by the sea before returning home, and there’s no finer place along the North African coast to do such a thing than the family-run Residence Soltana at Zarzis. The town is loud, frenetic and full of authentic life, but the hotel is set in walled gardens of great beauty. My room was in a tower, three sides of which overlooked the sea, and I knew that a similar suite anywhere else around the Med would cost at least three times as much.
Which is one of the great beauties of visiting Tunisia – it is as inexpensive as it is breathtaking – and I shall definitely be heading south again, specially if the weather gets more grim and grey here.